We present a method with the potential to generate a library of coil segments from first principles. Proteins are built from α-helices and/or β-strands interconnected by these coil segments. Here, we investigate the conformational determinants of short coil segments, with particular emphasis on chain turns. Toward this goal, we extracted a comprehensive set of two-, three-, and four-residue turns from X-ray–elucidated proteins and classified them by conformation. A remarkably small number of unique conformers account for most of this experimentally determined set, whereas remaining members span a large number of rare conformers, many occurring only once in the entire protein database. Factors determining conformation were identified via Metropolis Monte Carlo simulations devised to test the effectiveness of various energy terms. Simulated structures were validated by comparison to experimental counterparts. After filtering rare conformers, we found that 98% of the remaining experimentally determined turn population could be reproduced by applying a hydrogen bond energy term to an exhaustively generated ensemble of clash-free conformers in which no backbone polar group lacks a hydrogen-bond partner. Further, at least 90% of longer coil segments, ranging from 5- to 20 residues, were found to be structural composites of these shorter primitives. These results are pertinent to protein structure prediction, where approaches can be divided into either empirical or abinitio methods. Empirical methods use database-derived information; abinitio methods rely on physical–chemical principles exclusively. Replacing the database-derived coil library with one generated from first principles would transform any empirically based method into its corresponding abinitio homologue.